HC Deb 20 July 1971 vol 821 cc1245-9
9. Mr. Ashton

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what is the percentage increase in food prices that has now taken place since 18th July, 1970.

11. Sir G. Nabarro

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he will now make a further statement on the increase in retail prices for food during the 12 months ended 18th June, 1971, or the nearest convenient date.

17. Mr. Barnes

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what movement there was in retail food prices as shown by the Food Index for the period 18th May to 22nd June, 1971.

19. Mr. Willey

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food by how much the Food Index has risen from June, 1970, to the latest available date.

Mr. Prior

I would refer hon. Members to the reply I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) and others on 29th June ; no later figure is yet available.—[Vol. 820, c. 193–4.]

Mr. Ashton

Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to examine the statement of the Secretary of State for Social Services last Thursday that, of the pension increase of £1 in September, 74 per cent. had been absorbed by rising prices? As food is the predominant item of a pensioner's expenditure, when will he get rid of this complacency towards increases in food prices and introduce concrete proposals to stop manufacturers putting S.E.T. cuts in their pockets?

Mr. Prior

There is no complacency on this subject. I hope that after the C.B.I. initiative and the Government's action yesterday, hon. Members opposite will join in trying to restrain wage increases, which constitute one of the major factors in food price inflation.

Sir G. Nabarro

Other than minuscule price reductions on those articles of food which attract purchase tax—such as confectionery, soft drinks, pet foods and ice cream, which are not basic foodstuffs—what was there in the mini-Budget yesterday which could halt these catastrophic increases in the price of basic foodstuffs?

Mr. Prior

In fact there was a great deal. If one can bring under control all those costs which go into the food manufacturing industry, there is a good chance that it can keep its prices stable.

Mr. Barnes

In view of the fact that the figure for the food index on 22nd June, when it is published, will show a rise in retail food prices over the 12 months since June, 1970, of about 12 per cent., and since the Food Manufacturers Federation has said that it cannot keep to the 5 per cent. ceiling on price increases asked for by the C.B.I., on what will the Minister rely during the next 12 months to ensure that we do not get the sort of retail food price increases that we have had during the last 12 months?

Mr. Prior

The hon. Gentleman could not have heard me say that the executive committee of the Food Manufacturers Federation has this morning agreed to recommend its members to accept the C.B.I.'s undertaking.

Mr. Willey

Will the Minister answer the question? These food price increases are bearing particularly heavily on the less-well-off people, and the Minister is responsible. Will he now say what specific action he intends to take about this during the next 12 months and, incidentally, will he give a forecast of the likely increase in food prices in the coming 12 months?

Mr. Prior

I will not give a forecast of food price increases in the next 12 months. All the efforts of the Government are designed to reduce the increases in the price of food, unlike the right hon. Gentleman, whose Government were responsible for putting up prices by taxation.

Miss Joan Hall

Is it not a fact that shop assistants, who are among the lowest paid sections of the communitly, have rightly been given wage increases and, I am happy to say, are to receive equal pay? I am sure that the whole House will endorse that. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that this means increased costs for shop owners?

Mr. Prior

That is true—[Interruption.] Hon. Gentlemen opposite are only too prepared to cheer increases in costs, but they are quick to get on to me when prices go up.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the increase of 12 per cent. in the cost of food over the last 12 months is causing the most acute hardship to a large section of the community? Would he say precisely what recommendations the Food Manufacturers Federation has accepted? Has it made any reservations in what it has said? Would he be a little more forthcoming on this issue?

Mr. Prior

The Food Manufacturers Federation has accepted the C.B.I.'s undertaking, which refers to an increase of 5 per cent. over the next 12 months. The C.B.I.'s document is long. It is available to hon. Members, but if the right hon. Gentlemen would like me to do so, I will arrange for a copy to be placed in the Library.

15. Mr. Dixon

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what estimates are in his possession of the change between the first quarter of 1971 and the second quarter of 1971 in international food prices ; and what estimate he has made of the effect that this is likely to have on United Kingdom food prices.

Mr. Prior

Detailed information about international food prices is not yet available for the second quarter of 1971, but there were during that period significant increases in the prices of certain commodities which we buy from overseas, and these are bound to have some effect on retail prices.

Mr. Dixon

Does my right hon. Friend agree that by far the most important factor affecting the rise in United Kingdom food prices is the level of international food prices? Since, in the nature of things, these are outside the control of any Government in Britain, Labour or Conservative, is it not intellectually dishonest for any hon. Member to ascribe the blame for rises in food prices to any particular Government in this country?

Mr. Prior

Between one-third and one-half of the increases in food prices have been due to increases in world prices. It may be of interest to hon. Members to know that in the period 1964 to 1970 export prices of the primary producers throughout the world fell by 1.9 per cent. In the short period from the first half of 1970 to the first quarter of 1971 they rose by no less than 7.4 per cent.

Mr. Barnes

The Minister said earlier that between one-third and one-half of the increases in food prices were due to increases in international commodity prices. How does he arrive at that estimate? Will he tell us more about it? How does he apply this to retail food prices, including packaged goods, which form the bulk of consumers' purchases, in seeking to apply the figures to the whole range of retail food products?

Mr. Prior

If the hon. Gentleman wants a detailed reply to all those points, he should table a Question, and I will do my best to answer it. Broadly speaking, if one takes the increases in world prices of commodities, such as butter, beef, cereals and so on over the last year, one can see how the components are made up.

Mr. Peter Mills

Does not this clearly show to the House and the country how important it is to have increased home production in agriculture? If in the last five or six years production had increased, we should not now be so dependent on overseas supplies.

Mr. Prior

That is quite true, and I am glad to say that agriculture is now responding with increased confidence. I am certain that production will go up considerably.

Mr. Molloy

In so far as the right hon. Gentleman has admitted, in replying to earlier Questions, that there have been rises, particularly in meat prices, and that old-age pensioners have been particularly hit by these increases, may I ask him to have discussions with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services with a view to seeing that a further and immediate increase is given to old-age pensioners so that their pension is capable of absorbing the rises in the price of food stuffs which are so essential to them?

Mr. Prior

That is not a question for me, but I am, of course, in constant touch with my right hon. Friend. I recognise, as the House recognises, that this is a serious matter for all sections of society, and in particular for old-age pensioners. Because of increases in world prices we are going through a very difficult period. I hope very much—I cannot be more confident than this—that we are just about at the peak.